Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe

Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar is a cultural historian specialising in supernatural belief and popular print in early modern England. In 2021 she co-ordinated the second-year History subject Witch-hunting in European Societies (HIST20080). Recent graduate Jen McFarland sat down with Charlotte to talk about her research.

What first drew you to witchcraft as an area of research?

People always ask me that and I find it hard to answer because I feel like everyone should be drawn to witchcraft as an area of research – it’s fun!

I think I was always interested in it. Then I did the witchcraft subject at Melbourne Uni when I was an undergrad and that made me realise that it was an academic area of study. This was a revelation to me: that you can study how human beings have been capable of believing all kinds of fabulous things and how these beliefs have had consequences in the real world. I find exploring human belief and this question of what’s real and what isn’t real very interesting.

Anne Bodenham (1573–1653), ‘The Wiltshire Witch’, a cunning woman executed for witchcraft. Image from Nathaniel Crouch, The Kingdom of Darkness (1688), 11

In 2021 you coordinated the second-year subject Witch-hunting in European Societies. It’s a very popular subject – could you tell us a bit about what it covers and why you think there’s so much interest in witch-hunting? I know you’ve just said everyone should be interested.

Of course! In terms of what the subject covers, it’s an early modern subject but it does include some medieval material as well. So, it starts in the 1430s, which is when the new idea of the witch was formed. Before the early modern period, people do believe in witchcraft but what changes in the fifteenth century is that people start to think of witches as part of a new type of diabolical heresy: that is, that witches are aligned with the Devil and that they’re working together to overthrow Christian society. There’s also an increasing belief that the last days are approaching and, as such, people are more likely to believe that the Devil is amassing more witches to his service.

So, we start the subject there, with this new figure of the witch as an agent in league with the Devil. This is also the time when witchcraft comes to be viewed as a secular crime, not an ecclesiastical one, so it’s something that’s punished more broadly. We look at the new characteristics of the witch emerging in this period, that is, the way in which she – normally it is a she – is meant to make a pact with the Devil. She’s meant to kill children and make men impotent, cause weather magic, go to the Sabbath where witches gather at night to perform ceremonies with the Devil and so on.

We look at some of the main regions, including the Holy Roman Empire, and Scotland and England, and we also look at Salem [in the United States], which is always fun. In the second half of the semester, we take a bit more of a thematic approach and we look at things like possession and child witches. In doing all that, we also look at Reformation history and the early modern period more broadly.

It’s always been a popular subject but I think that right now, in particular, witch-hunting is really in the public eye. ‘Witch’ is still a term with so much power. Women are still called witches as a political insult; and Donald Trump likes to call himself the victim of a ‘witch-hunt’. So the idea of the witch is something that’s very much in the public mind and I think that just adds another layer of fascination to the topic.

I understand that as part of the subject, you also do a witch trial scenario activity. How do you find that students react to that? And what do you find it adds to teaching?

It’s not so much a witch trial as a series of scenarios. The first assignment is on Salem; so, by the time we get to the activity in week six, students have already done a lot of their own research on Salem. So, they’re fairly familiar with it and, also, because the Salem trials happened over a relatively short period of time, it’s a narrative that you can get your head around quite easily.

What we do is we give the students different scenarios: let’s say, you’re a woman in Salem and such-and-such has happened – how do you react? What do you do? This exercise allows students to draw on their research but, more than that, the idea is to try and get into the headspace of someone living at that time.

One of the things that comes out of it is that students develop more of an understanding of just how scary the prospect of witchcraft would have been – that if you were in a world where your child starts fitting and your cows are dying, and there’s famine, and you know witches are about, then that would actually be really scary! We often have a tendency to dismiss people in the past for being ignorant or superstitious or not worth worrying about on that level. But if you’re able to actually relate to these people, that can really further your understanding of what they went through and why things happened as they did.

The apprehension and confession of three notorious witches, c1589. Lambeth Palace Library, 1597.15.03

Printed pamphlets have underpinned a lot of your work on witchcraft. What caught your attention in those as a source, and what did you find most unexpected in them?

They’re a great source! They’re very easy to access, they’re easy to read, and there are a lot of them. The ones I’ve worked on, that is, the English witchcraft pamphlets, hadn’t been studied as a group before. They were really an untapped resource in that way.

A few decades ago, some people viewed popular print as not a ‘real’ history source: compared to say, a trial record, it wasn’t considered ‘serious’. Luckily, that’s changed. And the thing that’s really great about popular pamphlets is how they allow you to see all the different influences that go into these stories – they include snippets of trial records, testimony from the accused and the accuser or victim, summaries from the pamphleteer and so on. They are, of course, designed to sell, so they can be pretty sensational. And everything is mediated through the pamphleteer, so you have to be cautious about that. But you also do get real stories and, then, in that way, you get to see how the accused witch is trying to describe their own narrative as well. As I said, that is mediated, but you do get those different voices as well as a sense of the witch’s own agency.

These pamphlets can contain an amazing amount of detail; and in some ways they really have the potential to transform our understanding of the witch trials. My focus was on looking at the role of the Devil in English witchcraft and I used pamphlets as a way to do that. In the historiography, English witchcraft has always been seen as very different from its European counterparts – the traditional view was that English witchcraft was less about diabolism and more about harmful magic (maleficium). But, as my work on the pamphlets demonstrates, the Devil played a key role in English witchcraft belief.

The main way you see the Devil appear in pamphlets is in the form of the familiar spirit – that is, a small, domestic animal who plays the role of the Devil. Sometimes you do also see a more traditional image of him as a cloven footed, horned man. It was those constant references to devils in the pamphlets that allowed me to frame my work as a rethink of an older historiographical narrative.

You mentioned before that this is generally a crime that women were accused of. More recently scholars have also started exploring why men might have been accused of witchcraft. How did gender play into witchcraft accusations? And how has it influenced your work?

Such a huge question! Generally, yes, women make up 80 to 90 per cent of those accused of witchcraft. It depends where you are – in the Holy Roman Empire and England and Scotland, it’s very heavily female focused. But there are areas of France and parts of Italy, and also parts of, I think, Scandinavia, where there are more men than women. So, it really does depend, but generally, there are more women.

One thing to bear in mind though is that although most accused witches were women, in England at least, most of those doing the accusing were also women. So, it is not a case of men persecuting women, as some early feminist scholars, have suggested. It’s much more nuanced and complex.

You do see a lot of witchcraft allegations appearing in a very female sphere; for example, in a domestic sphere, where there are female concerns and power dynamics. Gender is absolutely key but, as historians, we have definitely moved away from the idea that this was all about ‘men vs women’.

In the last twenty years or so there has been much more attention paid to male witches. We’ve come at them from a perspective of ‘okay, well, we have 10 to 20 per cent men accused. How do we explain these cases?’ This is still a wide-open question. I think one of the most convincing arguments is perhaps that both male and female witches had a tendency to be people who didn’t conform to gender expectations. But this is still a very contested and moving field. It’s clear though that gender is, of course, absolutely crucial to understanding witchcraft.

The Witch of Edmonton, a play by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford &c. (printed by J Cottrell, London, 1658). Houghton Library, Harvard University, 14433.26.13 via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve also started work more recently on a project on ghosts. What does that project focus on?

The main focus of the project is looking at tensions in supernatural belief. There’s a lot of confusion about ghosts in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, because technically, once you get rid of Purgatory and you move to a Protestant view, ghosts shouldn’t exist. But they do. And it’s not just ordinary people who believe in them. A lot of Protestant ministers clearly believe in ghosts as well – so I find that interesting as a kind of tension between popular and learned belief.

I’m also interested in the form these ghosts take and how they interact with beliefs about devils. A lot of early modern ghosts are described as demonic or even animalistic. And from those depictions I’ve been looking at the form the ghost takes and the types of emotions that these ghosts engender – normally fear – and how that fear is linked to fear of the Devil.

How did early modern understandings of witches and ghosts differ?

Well, they’re very different, because witches were real people. Not that they were really witches – but that witches were real people who were accused of that crime. And so, the way you study them is different, because with witches you can look at trial records, for example, whereas with ghosts, the records are much more ephemeral.

I think fear is central to reports of both witches and ghosts, though. If you look at pamphlet accounts of witches and ghosts, they’re both described in fearful terms; there’s a lot of demonism present as well.

That’s not always the case, though – sometimes ghosts are quite happy and a little bit benign. There’s one ghost of a baker that comes back and keeps baking bread all the time, which doesn’t seem to really bother anyone.

Witches, on the other hand, are never really entirely benign – there were helpful witches, but they always had an agenda. And witches are far more of a pressing concern, whereas ghosts are something that are possibly less worrisome.

You did your PhD here at Melbourne. What would you say to students thinking about a research degree?

I loved doing my PhD; it was a great experience. I think that it’s really important to go into it with a firm idea of why you’re doing it. Not everyone going into a PhD wants an academic career, but I think if you do want one, then you need to be aware of the difficulties, so that you’re putting yourself in the best possible position.

But, also, it’s a really fun experience. I loved it so much. I would say that you should go into the office each day. You should treat it like a job and go in nine to five – or ten to five, really! Mix with your cohort, go to all the events, just really get involved in the whole thing.

It’s a great opportunity to be able to really focus on one project. Because after the PhD, if you do keep going with academia, there are always millions of things that need your attention, most of which tend to take you away from research. And, so, it’s nice to just focus on one thing that you can get wholly involved in.

Also, make the most of your supervisor! It’s so important to meet regularly with them, to show them drafts, to take their feedback onboard. Sometimes we can be nervous about showing our in-progress work to others but it’s so crucial to get feedback at each stage of the process.

Dr Charlotte Rose-Millar is a teaching specialist in early modern history at the University of Melbourne (2021–2023). She has held a research fellowship at the University of Queensland (2016–2020) and a visiting fellowship at the University of Cambridge (2018).

She is the author of Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England (Routledge, 2017) and is currently working on a new, book-length project on ghosts in early modern England, as well as editing volume three of Bloomsbury’s six-volume series, A Cultural History of Magic.

You can read more about Charlotte’s work in the Forum post on Urban Ghosts in Early Modern London.


Feature image: The Witch of Edmonton, a play by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford &c. (printed by J Cottrell, London, 1658). Houghton Library, Harvard University, 14433.26.13 via Wikimedia Commons